An IPL for field hockey ?

Cricket and hockey, two traditional games of the English elite are now eclipsed completely by working class football in the UK. In an ironic twist of fate, these sports are now patronized primarily by the middle class in its former plantation colony India. Even more twisted, many urban elites in India have now embraced European football as a marker of a more globalized identity, in opposition to the more ‘desi’ cricket. The popularity and patronization of a sport in a group of people still has more to do with identity and politics than any inherent characteristic of the sport.

Newspaper readership in the UK, correlations with class, sport and cuisine. Football is more populist, catering to the more working class constituency on both sides of the political spectrum. Cricket is niche, still covered by very conservative newspapers catering to the elite. (Source: https://www.eupedia.com/forum/threads/32762-Who-reads-which-newspaper-in-Britain)

Unlike cricket, hockey has not become a global behemoth in terms of revenue and following. Can hockey enter the upper echelons of global team sports ? I think if the Indian government, interested business and sports bodies play their cards well, hockey can do this. The key could be an IPL style hockey league. The adjective IPL style should not be understood in a facile manner. The cricket IPL is no ordinary sports league. It operates in a sporting universe where the international game is the highest echelon, rather than commercial city based clubs. This compresses its playing time to just 8 weeks, but the league generates more than a billion dollars in revenues in that period. Revenue per game is $ 10 million, compared to the NFL’s $ 50 million. The IPL achieves these numbers with a league only 14 years old, from a country with 1/30th America’s per capita GDP.

The spectacular success of the IPL is a miracle, and a similar mini-miracle will be needed to sustain a hockey league. A dedicated playing window, so all the best players can play on a single platform. Teams in big markets like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru to maximize revenues and publicity. Careful game timings and advertising to capitalize on a small but dedicated (and wealthy) fan following in the low countries and Germany. Since hockey as a sport has official status in India (in contrast to cricket), it can and should receive backing from the government. The Indian government can own a stake in the hockey IPL which it can relieve when the league is well established and profitable.

There are advantages hockey has vis-a-vis cricket in terms of playing time (1 hr vs 3 hrs) and its similarity to football in play and scoring. Of course, it is an established Olympic sport with strong men’s and women’s competitions. Hockey, along with soccer and cricket emphasizes skill and agility more than bulk and power, making it relatable in more geographies and demographics. The successful Olympics campaign will give birth to hockey stars who will rapidly gain a following in the sports star loving Indian public. Once well ensconced commercially in India, the game of hockey will garner the resources to promote itself further, just like cricket has.

17 thoughts on “An IPL for field hockey ?

  1. Hockey leagues have been tried in India for years but haven’t really hit the popular imagination.

    I think that if the government does wish to promote a sport then it should be kabbadi.

    Some thoughts:
    1. It requires much less investment in equipment and infrastructure
    2. Probably has a larger player base in India and spread out more evenly (one of the recent Pro Kabbadi Leagues was won by the team from Patna!)
    3. Also gaining popularity outside the subcontinent. The last world cup was won by Iran.
    4. Unlike hockey, the Pro Kabbadi League has shown that a sustainable league can be run
    5. There’s a growing interest in contact sports like MMA globally. This can be leveraged with proper marketing.
    6. Kabbadi will also be more novel than hockey, which sits uncomfortably in the middle of football and ice hockey, getting the attention of neither.
    7. It does seem to be more TV friendly that hockey. Hockey is a fast sport – it has that going for it but it’spretty difficult to see the ball
    8. I also think that it’d be easier to create ‘stars’ in kabbadi since a single player can impact the game pretty significantly.

    Most importantly, India can truly ‘own’ kabbadi.

    1. We already have a pretty successful kabaddi league. Not sure I would want the government to get involved ….

      There needs to be more kabaddi in school though, it is a good sport for young people to play.

      1. I believe that any sport needs to be played in a certain minimum number of countries to be considered. But its definitely a very good sport, and makes for great TV.

        1. It’s definitely played in a lot of countries now. If baseball got to be in the olympics this time, no reason kabbadi doesn’t deserve a slot.

  2. The Hockey India League was quite good when it lasted. I have heard my Dutch colleagues discuss that league quite often. Many Dutch national players played in the league teams. I guess it folded due to some scheduling issues in the international calendar and financial viability.

    Its predecessor, the PHL, even introduced new concepts to international hockey. It was quite a big success in terms of format innovation.

    I hope we are lucky the third time!

    1. For the financial viability aspect, we need to think in terms of generations. It took a decade+ for IPL teams to become profitable, they make a 100 crore surplus every year now. With the hockey league, targets have to be made modest, but they are achievable.

      International scheduling is a preeminent factor. I think a major reason for the under performance of the BBL is the clash with Australia’s international cricket calendar.

    1. We need profitable sports leagues in major team sports for our athletics athletes to find stable, meaningful jobs. Track and field, weightlifting, swimming are not ideal sports for self sufficient businesses.

  3. The Hockey India League was precisely what you are asking for, hockey’s answer to the IPL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hockey_India_League. It was very successful and popular while it lasted. Just like the IPL, celebrities sponsored various teams, which drew the top players from Europe and Australia. Quality was very high, and I’m positive it improved both the skill level and confidence of the Indian players. I used to watch it quite regularly, and was very disappointed when it ended; no idea why though. I thought it was financially successful, but I could be wrong. Anyone have any pointers?

    1. Scheduling in with the international calendar and financial viability. See my comment upstairs.

      1. You could be right, but if so, I’d like to know the reasons why. If you look at the Wikipedia entry, it says that the league proved to be a financial success for Hockey India (and this squared with my observations too).

        Scheduling may be an issue but I kinda doubt it. As in cricket, India is THE biggest global market in hockey. The past few years have seen several top events being scheduled in India. Several instances of the Champions Trophy and the Hockey Pro League, as well as the 2010 and 2018 World Cups. And get this, the 2024 World Cup is again going to be held in India. This suggests to me that the FIH (the world body governing hockey) is not going to have a problem scheduling other events around a Hockey India League’s timetable if necessary.

        1. Actually some players salaries were skipped. Several in fact. So they closed down to avoid legal cases and a repeat of that in the next season. Sad, really.

          1. Yeah, it’s sad. And the link Vikram posted above explains a lot.

            Hope the achievements of the Indian teams in Tokyo (the womens’ feat was significantly more remarkable, given they were not seeded at the beginning of the tournament) creates opportunities. The game definitely has a high profile, despite our national obsession with cricket.

            As an aside, I’ve often wondered why no enterprising filmmaker has ever tried to make a movie about our achievement in the 1936 Olympics. We trounced everyone there (beat the US in the first game by 23 goals IIRC), including the hosts Germany in the final by 8-1 in front of the Nazi top brass no less. If they can make movies about Jesse Owens, surely this qualifies as a fairy tale too!

  4. If medals in Olympics is what India wants, then its better for the govt to spend it resources on categories like shooting and wrestling which have multiple categories to win, rather than on one single medal in Hockey.

    If its truely about Hockey, then i doubt any other sports can really replace cricket, or even come close to matching its potential. Cricket in a way slipped thru the cracks and became India’s ‘anything but sports’ middle class only other alternative for their children. I doubt Indian parents would allow another sports ever to mimic cricket’s sucess. Apart from the ones who are really at top (like Bindra’s etc who can spend crores on shooting) or at the bottom (like women;s hockey parents) who are too powerless to stop their children.

    1. I am sure medals in the Olympics is what India wants. But the process should be organic and a consequence of a thriving sporting culture, where it is a cultural practice to attend sports events. The best way to achieve this is yearly, regular sports leagues in big team sports. Without these, there can be no sports entertainment industry.

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